The ceiling of his room is rather low; and the upper part of the door, which is opposite the window, is of glass. There is an inner baize door, too, but the night being warm he did not close it when he came upstairs. These eyes that meet his own are looking in through the glass from the corridor outside. He knows them well. The blood has not flushed into his face so suddenly and redly for many a long year as when he recognizes Lady Dedlock.
He steps into the room, and she comes in too, closing both the doors behind her. There is a wild disturbance--is it fear or anger?--in her eyes. In her carriage and all else she looks as she looked downstairs two hours ago.
Is it fear or is it anger now? He cannot be sure. Both might be as pale, both as intent.
She does not speak at first, nor even when she has slowly dropped into the easy-chair by the table. They look at each other, like two pictures.
"Why have you told my story to so many persons?"
"Lady Dedlock, it was necessary for me to inform you that I knew it."
"How long have you known it?"
"I have suspected it a long while--fully known it a little while."
He stands before her with one hand on a chair-back and the other in his old-fashioned waistcoat and shirt-frill, exactly as he has stood before her at any time since her marriage. The same formal politeness, the same composed deference that might as well be defiance; the whole man the same dark, cold object, at the same distance, which nothing has ever diminished.
"Is this true concerning the poor girl?"
He slightly inclines and advances his head as not quite understanding the question.
"You know what you related. Is it true? Do her friends know my story also? Is it the town-talk yet? Is it chalked upon the walls and cried in the streets?"
So! Anger, and fear, and shame. All three contending. What power this woman has to keep these raging passions down! Mr. Tulkinghorn's thoughts take such form as he looks at her, with his ragged grey eyebrows a hair's breadth more contracted than usual under her gaze.
"No, Lady Dedlock. That was a hypothetical case, arising out of Sir Leicester's unconsciously carrying the matter with so high a hand. But it would be a real case if they knew--what we know."
"Then they do not know it yet?"
"Can I save the poor girl from injury before they know it?"
"Really, Lady Dedlock," Mr. Tulkinghorn replies, "I cannot give a satisfactory opinion on that point."
And he thinks, with the interest of attentive curiosity, as he watches the struggle in her breast, "The power and force of this woman are astonishing!"
"Sir," she says, for the moment obliged to set her lips with all the energy she has, that she may speak distinctly, "I will make it plainer. I do not dispute your hypothetical case. I anticipated it, and felt its truth as strongly as you can do, when I saw Mr. Rouncewell here. I knew very well that if he could have had the power of seeing me as I was, he would consider the poor girl tarnished by having for a moment been, although most innocently, the subject of my great and distinguished patronage. But I have an interest in her, or I should rather say--no longer belonging to this place--I had, and if you can find so much consideration for the woman under your foot as to remember that, she will be very sensible of your mercy."
Mr. Tulkinghorn, profoundly attentive, throws this off with a shrug of self-depreciation and contracts his eyebrows a little more.
"You have prepared me for my exposure, and I thank you for that too. Is there anything that you require of me? Is there any claim that I can release or any charge or trouble that I can spare my husband in obtaining HIS release by certifying to the exactness of your discovery? I will write anything, here and now, that you will dictate. I am ready to do it."
And she would do it, thinks the lawyer, watchful of the firm hand with which she takes the pen!
"I will not trouble you, Lady Dedlock.